Posted on




Isn’t religion a form of philosophy?   Are both philosophy and religion the same type of activity?  At times there appears to be some confusion over whether and how religion and philosophy should be distinguished from each other – this confusion is not unjustified because there are some very strong similarities between the two.

The questions that are discussed in both religion and philosophy tend to be very much alike.  Both religion and philosophy grapple with problems such as:  What is good?  What does it mean to live a good life?   What is the nature of reality?  Why we are here and what should we be doing?  How should we treat each other?    What is really most important in life?

Philosophy of religion is a branch of philosophy concerned with questions regarding religion, including the nature and existence of God, the examination of religious experience, analysis of religious vocabulary and texts, and the relationship of religion and science.  It is an ancient discipline, being found in the earliest known manuscripts concerning philosophy, and relates to many other branches of philosophy and general thought, including metaphysics, logic and history.  Philosophy of religion is frequently discussed outside of academia through popular books and debates, mostly regarding the existence of God and the problem of evil.

The philosophy of religion differs from religious philosophy in that it seeks to discuss questions regarding the nature of religion as a whole, rather than examining the problems brought forth by a particular belief system. It is designed such that it can be carried out dispassionately by those who identify as believers or non-believers

Philosophy of religion has classically been regarded as a part of metaphysics   In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, prior cause of eternal motion was an unmoved mover, who, like the object of desire, or of thought, inspires motion without itself being moved.   According to Aristotle, is God, the subject of study in theology?   Today, however, philosophers have adopted the term philosophy of religion for the subject, and typically it is regarded as a separate field of specialization, although it is also still treated by some, particularly Catholic philosophers, as a part of metaphysics.

Questions that have been studied in the philosophy of religion include what, if anything, would give us good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred, what is the relationship between faith and reason, what is the relationship between morality and religion, what is the status of religious language, and does petitionary prayer make sense?     Going beyond metaphysics, the philosophy of religion also addresses questions in areas such as epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophical logic, and moral philosophy.

Among theists, some believe there is just one God, while others believe in many gods. Some Hindus have a widely followed monistic philosophy that can be said to be neither monotheistic nor polytheistic.  Within these two broad categories (monotheism and polytheism) there is a wide variety of possible beliefs. For example, among the monotheists deists believe that the one God is like a watchmaker who wound up the universe and does not intervene further in the universe, and some theists believe that God continues to be active in the universe.  Ignostics object that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed.

There is yet another question, “Do we have any good reason to think that God does or does not exist?” is equally important in the philosophy of religion. There are several main positions with regard to the existence of God that one might take:   (a)   Theism – the belief in the existence of one or more divinities or deities; (b)  Pantheism – the belief that God exists as all things of the cosmos, that God is one and all is God; God is immanent;  (c)  Panentheism – the belief that God encompasses all things of the cosmos but that God is greater than the cosmos; God is both immanent and transcendent;  (d)  Deism – the belief that God does exist but does not interfere with human life and the laws of the universe; God is transcendent; (e)  Monotheism – the belief that a single deity exists which rules the universe as a separate and individual entity;  (f)  Polytheism – the belief that multiple deities exist which rule the universe as separate and individual entities;  (g)  Henotheism – the belief that multiple deities may or may not exist, though there is a single supreme deity;  (h)  Henology – believing that multiple avatars of a deity exist, which represent unique aspects of the ultimate deity;  (i)  Agnosticism – the belief that the existence or non-existence of deities or God is currently unknown or unknowable and cannot be proven. A weaker form of this might be defined as simply a lack of certainty about gods’ existence or nonexistence; (j) Atheism – the rejection of belief in the existence of deities; (k) Strong Atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities; (l) Weak Atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist; and (m) Apatheism – the lack of caring whether any supreme being exists, or lack thereof.

These are not mutually exclusive positions.   Agnostic theists choose to believe God exists while asserting that knowledge of God’s existence is inherently unknowable.   Yet agnostic atheists reject belief in the existence of all deities, while asserting that whether any such entities exist or not is inherently unknowable.

The attempt to provide proofs or arguments for the existence of God is one aspect of what is known as natural theology or the natural theistic project.   This strand of natural theology attempts to justify belief in God by independent grounds.   There is plenty of philosophical literature on faith and other subjects generally considered to be outside the realm of natural theology.   Perhaps most of philosophy of religion is predicated on natural theology’s assumption that the existence of God can be justified or warranted on rational grounds. There has been considerable philosophical and theological debate about the kinds of proofs, justifications and arguments that are appropriate for this discourse.

Belief in God is not a proposition with a particular truth value, but a form of life.  Consequently, the question of whether God exists confuses the logical categories which govern theistic language with those that govern other forms of discourse.   The question of whether or not God exists cannot be “objectively” answered by philosophy because the categories of truth and falsity, which are necessary for asking the question, have no application in the religious contexts wherein religious belief has its sense and meaning. In other words, the question cannot be answered because it cannot be asked without entering into confusion.

Religion is a difficult subject to discuss since it would be difficult to be objective about because it is such a personal topic, meaning subjective claims are always expressed.   An Objective claim to test the existence of a supernatural all powerful deity/deities would be the law of non-contradiction meaning that such a belief is either real or imaginary.    Due to the fact, that there cannot be a middle ground between the two possibilities of existence versus non-existence. This means that a Supernatural all powerful deity/deities can only be real or imaginary, not both. Throughout articles Authors would start with an objective claim and relate them back to validate their individual subjective claim.

Clearly, then, there are enough similarities that religions can be philosophical and philosophies can be religious.    Does this mean that we simply have two different words for the same fundamental concept?     No; there are some real differences between religion and philosophy which warrant considering them to be two different types of systems even though they overlap in places.

To begin with, of the two only religions have rituals. In religions, there are ceremonies for important life events (birth, death, marriage, etc.) and for important times of the year (days commemorating spring, harvest, etc.).    Philosophies, however, do not have their adherents engage in ritualistic actions.       Another difference is the fact that philosophy tends to emphasize just the use of reason and critical thinking whereas religions may make use of reason, but at the very least they also rely on faith, or even use faith to the exclusion of reason.   Granted, there are any number of philosophers who have argued that reason alone cannot discover truth or who have tried to describe the limitations of reason in some manner — but that isn’t the quite the same thing.

In religion, and even in religious philosophy, reasoned arguments are ultimately traced back to some basic faith in God, gods, or religious principles which have been discovered in some revelation.     A separation between the sacred and the profane is something else lacking in philosophy.   Certainly philosophers discuss the phenomena of religious awe, feelings of mystery, and the importance of sacred objects, but that is very different from having feelings of awe and mystery around such objects within philosophy.

Finally, most religions tend to include some sort of belief in what can only be described as the “miraculous” — events which either defy normal explanation or which are, in principal, outside the boundaries of what should occur in our universe.   Miracles may not play a very large role in every religion, but they are a common feature which you don’t find in philosophy. Nietzsche wasn’t born of a virgin, no angels appeared to announce the conception of Sartre, and Hume didn’t make the lame walk again.

The fact that religion and philosophy are distinct does not mean that they are entirely separate. Because they both address many of the same issues, it isn’t uncommon for a person to be engaged in both religion and philosophy simultaneously.    They may refer to their activity with only one term and their choice of which term to use may reveal quite a lot about their individual perspective on life; nevertheless, it is important to keep their distinctness in mind when considering them.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s